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Catch a wave

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The wavy wall at Paddington Green, a personal account from project architect Vic Johnson

When William Martin & Partners undertook repair and modernisation work at Paddington Green School, London W2, one of the tasks was to replace an existing 1.8m freestanding wall separating a wooded nature area from the primary school playground. Aesthetics and superior 'resistance to ball attack' dictated a new wall in preference to a fence and project architect Vic Johnson conceived an eye-catching design that went beyond the purely functional.

It was the winner in the paving and hard-landscape category in last year's Brick Awards. The judges commented: 'It is not only very well constructed, but is a fun and clever way of making a barrier fit into a playful atmosphere.' Vic Johnson describes here the concept of the wall, the development of its detail and the particular challenge it presented for the bricklayers. Their response was excellent, giving the clients an attractive and unusual wall and themselves a good deal of satisfaction.

I remember the first time I discussed ideas for the wavy wall with other members of the office. I had a recollection of an illustration in an arch- itectural journal that I had seen as a second-year student, showing a wall with an organic form. I think it was in Germany. My impression was that the bricks resembled plant cells under the microscope rather than solid, man-made elements.

The initial reaction from my immediate superior was amusement, disbelief and doubt that it could stand up or be constructed with any measure of consistency. At the time consistency did not seem a priority to me, nor probably to the client, who only had a broad idea of the effect I wanted to create. I resolved to prove the sceptics wrong and commenced by drawing the wall brick by brick. This was not as difficult as it seemed at first, although my decision to use only standard bricks did make the design all the more interesting.

The crux of the design was the modulation of the mortar joints, and hence the coursing of the bricks, to achieve a wavy form rather than creating it with cut or special bricks. Drawing the first panel in AutoCAD was beneficial, for it allowed me to rotate each brick until the elevation read properly. Once the brick alignment was set I had to decide how to fill the enlarged joints. Being familiar with traditional brickwork, I decided to use creasing tiles. I also experimented with marbles and shells, but chickened out at the last minute.

After deciding on the 'wavelength' I set out an entire brickwork panel and replicated it along the 50 metres of its length. At this stage, I was more than happy with the aesthetic content; even the engineering brick coping and DPC seemed to look right. However, I was anxious that the structural engineer might say it was not viable. David Rose, the engineer, was brilliant and took it all in his stride: though insisting on an enormous numbers of mini piles in the ground because of the proximity of the trees. The client groups were equally encouraging, but I have never felt so lacking in confidence as when the start of construction approached. Now everything depended on the bricklayer!

Fortunately, Holt Contracts prioritised craftsmanship and its brickie Glyn Davies came up trumps. He appreciated the problems and had the experience and skill to tackle the job confidently.

Visiting the site a few days after work had started, I had prepared myself to ask Glyn a few questions - what did he think of the wall? Could he do it? However, to my surprise he was half way through the first panel. And it looked just like the drawing. I told Glyn how pleased I was, but trying to restrain my enthusiasm and relief I assured him that if he had any problems I would come to site every day until he had all the guidance he wanted. In reality he made very few demands other than the approval of that first panel.

Glyn later told me, in typical understated fashion, that it was not as difficult as it had at first appeared. His first job was to prepared gauge rods marked with the courses at the peaks and at the troughs - they were crucial in maintaining consistency. It was important to Glyn and his team, Colin (his son) and Ian Riddick, that the arrises of the bricks lined up so that the curves flowed evenly. This had to be checked by eye and to this end they frequently stood back to check overall alignment and appearance. Consistency of the pointing was also challenging because of the varying thickness of the joints.

Glyn said he would be happy building walls like this every day because it was so different from run of the mill plain brickwork. Its fanciful form had stimulated his team's enthusiasm and challenged their skills.

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